The traditional media is dying

| May 14, 2008 | 6 Replies

In my most recent post on Dangerous Intersection, as well as others previously, I’ve written about the many ways in which the traditional media has willfully discarded its obligation to inform the public. And so far, as the 2008 presidential election gets into full swing, there are no signs of improvement. If anything, the traditional media has sunk lower than ever before, thrusting legitimate stories aside to pursue trivial distractions and shallow and meaningless issues of “character”.

So, are we as a nation doomed to become more and more ill-informed? Is our standing in the world only going to get worse while the populace is lulled into distraction by the TV screen? Is there no reason for hope?

Well, actually, there is. But it’s not the media is improving. Rather, it’s that Americans are increasingly recognizing its failings and abandoning it in huge numbers (HT, as always, to Glenn Greenwald).

Those trend lines tell an alarming story. The combined average audience for the big-three evening newscasts in 1980 was about 53 million viewers. By the fall of 2006, when Couric was getting ready to make the jump from NBC’s “Today” show, the three national evening newscasts had a combined audience of about 27 million viewers.

How’s that for a trend line? The evening newscasts lost about half of their audience over 26 years. They lost viewers at a rate of 1 million a year, and they’re still losing them. Last week, according to numbers Nielsen released Tuesday, the combined audience was 21.5 million.

The rise of blogs and the Internet has undoubtedly accelerated the decline, but it is not the sole cause. As the article says, this downturn began as long ago as the 1980s. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, people’s declining opinions of the news industry are partly the cause:

As we have noted in other reports,since the early 1980s, the public has come to view the news media as less professional, less accurate, less caring, less moral and more inclined to cover up rather than correct mistakes.

…The number of Americans with a favorable view of the press, for instance, dropped markedly in 2006, from 59% in February, to 48% in July. The metric can be volatile, but that was still one of the lower marks over the course of a decade.

And in one of the most basic yardsticks of public attitudes, the number of Americans who believe most or all of what news organizations tell them, there were continued declines. Virtually every news outlet saw its number fall in 2006.

With continuing stories like the revelation that the news channels hired bought-and-paid for Pentagon agents to spread favorable propaganda about the Iraq war in the guise of an “independent voice” – and those same channels’ ongoing and shocking blackout of this story – it’s not hard to understand why the American public is increasingly abandoning them and turning to other sources, such as the Internet, for news. And the sooner the better, I say.

Granted, on the Internet, it’s easy to find sources of information that are more fiercely partisan and agenda-driven than even Fox News, and whose disinterest in the facts is even worse than the traditional media’s. But the great virtue of the Internet, as former Vice President Al Gore said in The Assault on Reason, is that it’s a medium where the barriers to entry are low. Anyone can participate, and this makes it very easy to find a broad spectrum of differing views. Thus, in a key sense, the news from the Internet is balanced in a way that news from traditional sources can never be. (Of course, I’m preaching to the choir here, aren’t I?)

This productive cacophony of views is a far better analogue to the marketplace of ideas than the traditional media, where a few unaccountable individuals have enormous power to shape the focus, tone and direction of coverage that informs (or fails to inform) millions of people. In the increasingly diverse media landscape of the future, it will be far more difficult for meddling politicians and wealthy corporations to manipulate public opinion to their advantage.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Media

About the Author ()

I'm an author, skeptic and computer programmer living in New York City. I'm also an unapologetic atheist, and believe passionately that freethinkers deserve a much stronger voice in our culture than they've been given in the past. Since politicians and the mainstream media aren't willing to give us that, it falls to us to take our case directly to the public. Both on my own weblog, Daylight Atheism, and here on Dangerous Intersection, I hope to be able to spread the good news of freethought!

Comments (6)

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  1. Eunomiac says:

    Great article, as always. I prefer these more uplifting ones ;-)

    One quibble — the dares-to-be-clicked "shocking blackout of this news story" link leads to a Salon premium sitepass dead-end, at least for me. Can you perhaps update with a better link or more details so we know what you're referring to?

  2. YAAB says:

    Interesting observations, but I wonder if the decline in network news viewership represents people turning to other (potentially better) news outlets, or if in fact fewer people are paying attention to the news at all, unless the latest personal drama of Britney and Lindsay counts as news.

  3. Erika Price says:

    Yes, blogs and other forms of "new media" generally rank among the most partisan and agenda-driven sources of information available, but why do we assume bias is an undesirable thing? It is bias under the guise of objectivity that harms us, that leads us to conclusions without even realizing it. When we know someone stands on a particular soapbox, we have a much easier time evaluating the merit of their ramblings than if they speak behind a nice, authoritative mahogany podium. Blogs give us a wide array of noisy, imperfect soapboxes to sample and critique with ease, and this works to our own benefit as thoughtful people.

  4. Ebonmuse says:

    Eunomiac: You should have an option to click through and view Salon's articles in exchange for watching a brief ad. Or just subscribe to Glenn Greenwald's blog via RSS, which is what I do.

    Erika: Well put! I don't mind opinions if the person stating them is clear about what their stance is. That's much better, in my opinion, than the mainstream media's facade of pretending they don't have opinions and are just neutrally presenting the facts (cf. "Fair and Balanced"). The political views in effect at the networks exert an enormous influence, both on how stories are presented and on whether a story is covered in the first place.

  5. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    When Diane Sawyer, reporting on a fluff story about rhe winner of the Lebonese version of "Idol", followed it up with the remark "Borat would be so proud!"…. yet another network lost my respect, trust and attention.

    I think they have way beyond the point of political bias and into the twilight realm of meglamania previouslt pnly experienced by Caligula of Rome. They seem to think that reality bends to fit what they call truth.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Once again, Glenn Greenwald has exposed the corrupt corporate media for what it is:

    Perish the thought that journalists should be adversarial to our political officials, challenge what they say or point out when they're lying. Instead, their job is merely to pose polite questions, let political officials say what they want in response, and then go home — just as Charlie Gibson said. This is why most establishment journalists will never be convinced that they failed to do their job, no matter how much evidence is presented: because of the understanding they have of what "their job" actually is. If anything, by Gibson's understanding of what they're supposed to be doing, they did their job brilliantly, by letting Bush officials go on their shows and — as Cheney aide Cathy Martin said about what happens when they went on Tim Russert — "allow[ing Bush officials] to control the message."

    http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2008/05/28

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